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Engineering Careers | Blog Post

Engineers: Should you be a specialist or a generalist?

April 29, 2022
Linzi Nield
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If you’re an engineer mapping out your career trajectory, there’s an important question you should ask yourself: Should I aim to be a generalist who can dive in on a variety of different subjects with competence, or a specialist who has honed their expertise in a particular area?

There are pros and cons to both. Learning the difference will help you make the right decision for your career.

Why be a generalist?

Being a jack-of-all-trades will give you a lot of versatility. You’ll have more options when hunting for jobs, since you’ll be qualified for a number of different roles. Your employer will be able to find many uses for your abilities. A variety of skills becomes particularly handy at a startup or in times of change at an organization. And with a broader range of skills, you’ll gain experience working with many different teams. Generalists are more likely to become managers or leaders than specialists, because they’re adept at performing many different tasks at once and working cross-functionally. 

However, generalists are more expendable than specialists. Because generalists, by definition, lack a deep mastery of a particular subject, it will be easier for your organization to find someone who can replace you. Generalists are also more prone to burnout, because they’re more likely to juggle multiple tasks at once.

Why be a specialist?

While specialists might have fewer roles available to them than generalists, they’re much more likely to be indispensable at their organizations. As a specialist, you’ll find yourself with more power at your company due to your complex understanding of technical issues. And you can carve out a name for yourself as a thought leader. You can also command a higher salary that reflects the training you had to undertake to gain your expertise. As leaders, specialists tend to be in charge of specific projects. They steer the team as they build something that requires the oversight of a subject matter expert. Specialists also enjoy the focus that comes from centering their careers on one particular skill.

But specialists can also find themselves facing inflexibility in their careers. They might inadvertently disqualify themselves from roles at companies that are more suited to a generalist, and they run the risk of becoming obsolete as technology changes. You also might discover that, as a specialist, it’s harder to parlay your skills and experience into an executive role. 

Make the best choice for you

Most organizations need a mixture of specialists and generalists, so the choice you make should be based on what you think would give you the most satisfaction in your career.

Are you interested in a specific topic or do you change your mind often? Would you prefer to be a master of one field of knowledge, or have a strong understanding of several? Developing a skill matrix for yourself can be a helpful exercise. You can create an organized table that outlines your career goals, current skills, and the subject matter you’d need to learn to get to the next level. From there, you can get a better understanding of the steps you’d need to take to accomplish your goals and build a career path that will help you maximize for your own happiness.

Ready to take the next step in your engineering career? Explore open roles at Terminal’s partner companies today

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